Coram Boy

Coram Boy
Adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin’s novel. bAKEHOUSE Theatre and KXT. Nov 22 – Dec 7, 2019

In England and America Coram Boy has been played on vast stages with large casts, lush costumes, a chorus and an orchestra. It’s an epic tale, set in eighteenth-century England, with Dickensian themes and characters – a perfect vehicle for a main stage extravaganza!

Yet its Sydney premiere, on the small transept stage of the Kings Cross theatre, loses none of the dark drama or redeeming love of this beautiful adaptation. In fact, the proximity of the performers spreads like a cloak that wraps around the audience, gathering them into this poignant tale of greed, betrayal, love and music, and transporting them into a time when the English government condoned slavery and children could be sold as commodities. It is a “spell-binding, heart-breakingly beautiful tale” told by a company that has the courage to do big things in small but clever ways.

Doing so takes guts, time, innovative ideas and a production team that knows how to realise them. Directors John Harrison and Michael Dean, producer Suzanne Miller, composer Nate Edmondson and lighting designer Benjamin Brockman are such a team. It also takes a very dedicated and responsive cast – like the fifteen actors who carry over twenty characters into the jaundiced society of the early days of the industrial revolution and portray the horror and anguish that often occurred.

A society where people like Otis Gardiner take babies from unmarried mothers, promising they will be brought up and educated in the Thomas Coram orphanage – then bury them and use the money to fund other more devious exploits. Where fathers like Lord Ashbrook deny their sons the chance to follow their dreams. Where women are bought to sell on as slaves. Where those who are a little different are ridiculed and abused, and those of another colour are shunned and abused. Fortunately, these almost gothic themes are lightened by hope and redemption - and the music of Handel, that inspires the two young musicians about whom the plot revolves.

The ways in which Harrison and Dean have manipulated the many characters, the multiple scenes and a plethora of props to achieve such a complex production is testament to their intimate understanding of the script and the possibilities they can see in the space. Physical theatre plays a huge part in this production, implying moods, changing pace, transitioning scenes, evoking tension, introducing different dimensions of the script.  In a ballroom scene, choreography that is vertical rather than horizontal, lifts the action up rather than out.

Encompassed by Edmondson’s sound design, this action creates an atmosphere that is eerily isolated at times, frighteningly congested at others. Brockman’s lighting is equally evocative, softly touching motionless forms, sifting through misty ‘streets’, washing over drowning bodies. 

In this created world, the company works together as a committed collective, their characters clearly defined as they expose the twisted moralities that affect their lives. Ryan Hodson and Joshua Wiseman begin the tale as Alexander Ashbrook and Thomas Ledbury, teenagers from different social backgrounds, linked by their love of music.

Lloyd Allison-Young frighteningly creates the appalling Otis Gardiner and his sickening deeds. Ariadne Sgouros is formidable as Mrs Lynch, the woman who ‘procures’ the babies for him. Amanda Stevens-Lee plays the benevolent Lady Ashbrook, Andrew Den her insensitive husband who disowns his son because he chooses to study music.

Petronella Van Tienen is naively endearing as Ashbrook’s illegitimate son, Aaron, and it is her wide-eyed trust and beautiful voice that brings the estranged family back together. Annie Stafford is Melissa Milcote, his young mother. Suz Mawer plays Mrs Milcote, the typical ‘poor relation’ anxious to see her daughter in better circumstances. 

Tinashe Mangwana makes his theatre debut as Toby Gaddarn, an African orphan dreaming of finding his mother. Giddeon Payten-Griffiths plays a tutor, a judge and the composer Handel. Emma O’Sullivan, Violette Ayad and Rebecca Abdel-Messih play the many other characters that people the story – unmarried mothers with unwanted babies, Alexander’s sisters, children in the chapel choir.

And Joshua McElroy is Meshak and Mish. It is his performance that lingers at the edges of the memory, just as his characters linger at the edges of society. Whether hugging the sides of the stage as he stalks his “angel”, sobbing over the dead babies he buries, cowering under Otis’ harsh beatings or reaching up through waves of haze to save his “angel baby”, McElroy’s performance captures symbolically the downtrodden and neglected that hover on the outskirts of society. Such evocative direction is a distinctive feature of Harrison’s work

Though I have singled out specific performers, it is the ‘whole’ that impresses most about this production. The cruelty and pain of life, as well as its hope and joy are portrayed in a true ensemble production that has become bAKEHOUSE’s trademark.

Carol Wimmer

Photographer: Clare Hawley

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